Another painting to spot at the entrance to the 1760-1900 galleries is The Royal Commissioners for the Great Exhibition of 1851, featuring, alongside Prince Albert as chairman, Henry Cole and Joseph Paxton. The latter was the man responsible for the design of the Crystal Palace. He had worked previously as head gardener at Chatsworth where his lily house provided inspiration for his more famous creation.
We have much to thank Henry Cole for – a man at whom one only needs to glance to know he enjoyed his food. The V&A was the first museum in the world to feature a public restaurant and the sumptuously decorated, original “refreshment rooms”, the Morris, Gamble and Poynter Rooms, so loved in the Victorian era, have endured the years and are just as dazzling now as they must have been back then. Cole was also the driving force behind gas lighting at the V&A – the first museum in the world to have it – thus allowing for evening openings, which continue on Fridays to this day, to “furnish a powerful antidote to the gin palace”.
All this is but to scratch the surface of what the V&A offers. Art historian and former director of the museum Sir Roy Strong called it “an extremely capacious handbag”, which perhaps gives a sense of what it feels like to wander from sculpture to jewellery, past furniture, textiles, photography, paintings, ceramics and theatrical ephemera, through an incredible collection of Asian art and design and 5,000 years of human creativity.
The museum has been called many things. Cole described it as “a refuge for destitute collections” but perhaps his more flattering nickname – and one of which Prince Albert would approved, with his drive for education for all, was a “schoolroom for everyone”.